Leading Museums, Museum Leaders

Debunking Dark Emu:

Academic Peter Sutton, one of Australia’s leading anthropologists, disputes many claims made in Dark Emu. Credit: David Solm.

Stuart Rintoul, Debunking Dark Emu: did the publishing phenomenon get it wrong?, The Sydney Morning Herald, 12 June 2021

In 2014, Bruce Pascoe’s Dark Emu revolutionised interpretations of Indigenous history, arguing that Aboriginal people engaged in agriculture, irrigation and construction prior to the arrival of Europeans. Now, in a new book, two highly respected academics say that there is little evidence for these claims.

– Warning: The following article contains images of Indigenous people who are deceased.


The walls of Peter Sutton’s home in country South Australia are hung with ghosts – black-and-white photographs he has collected from second-hand shops over the years, the long-gone people he calls “poignant strangers”, staring out from the past, without families who want or remember them.

It’s a rambling old house of stone and timber, everything you would expect an anthropologist’s home to be: rooms filled with books, papers, a large volume of genealogies of Wik families from Cape York among whom he has spent much of his professional life, including some 2000 records of births and deaths. Sutton has spent many decades with the Wik people; danced with them, cried with them. There are other records, from western Arnhem Land, Daly River, the Murranji Track – ghost road of the drovers, Central Australia and the corner country of the Lake Eyre basin.

Sprawled across a dining room table is an almost-finished book about the early 20th century Queensland anthropologist Ursula Hope McConnel, who was brave and brilliant and solitary.

Sutton is one of Australia’s leading anthropologists. A gifted linguist, rigorous, sometimes controversial, a debunker of myths who stood, grief-stricken, in the little cemetery at Aurukun, on the west coast of Cape York, in September 2000 and began to think the thoughts that gradually formed themselves into his heretical essay and then book, The Politics of Suffering: Indigenous Australia and the End of the Liberal Consensus, which exposed the gulf between progressive ambition and dysfunctional reality in Aboriginal communities.

Quietly spoken, with a restless curiosity, independent-minded Sutton is now almost 75 years old but doesn’t seem it. An outsider in many ways throughout his life, he was born in working-class Port Melbourne at a time when men in hats and shabby suits played two-up on the other side of his grandmother’s back fence.

He was raised a Christian Scientist, steeped in its doctrines and uplifted by its faith in “life’s unlimited possibilities”, but ultimately found his emotional home in the lives and memories of the Aboriginal families with whom he has long been entwined. Such is his standing among his academic colleagues that in 2016, to mark his 70th birthday, a two-volume Festschrift was arranged, a collection of essays to honour his life’s work. Such is his standing among the Wik people that they contributed to its publishing costs.

We sit talking at his kitchen table. A visiting dog, owned by a friend and named after the irascible Daisy Bates – who lived on the edge of the Nullarbor Plain with Aboriginal people and tried to understand them when many did not – lies at my feet and keeps company with Sutton’s old dog, Hochi, who is blind and loving and finds his way by smell and memory.

It is a new book, just completed, that we meet to discuss – a rebuttal of one of the most popular Aboriginal histories of recent times, a publishing phenomenon, Bruce Pascoe’s Dark Emu, in which Pascoe argues that Aboriginal people in pre-colonial Australia were not “hapless wanderers across the soil, mere hunter-gatherers” – his expression – but were “in the early stages of an agricultural society”, were not “simply wandering from plant to plant, kangaroo to kangaroo in a hapless opportunism”, but were early farmers who tilled the soil, sowed crops that they irrigated, harvested and stored, altered the course of rivers, built dams, sewed clothes, and lived for long periods in substantial dwellings, sometimes made of stone.

First published in 2014, Dark Emu has won some of the nation’s richest and most prestigious literary awards, including the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for Indigenous Writing and both the Book of the Year and the Indigenous Writers’ Prize in the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards, where the judges declared that Pascoe was “without peer in his field”.

A host of reviewers have spoken glowingly of it. Indigenous academic Marcia Langton called it “a profound challenge to conventional thinking about Aboriginal life on this continent” and “the most important book on Australia”. In 2018, Australia’s premier Aboriginal dance company Bangarra adapted the book into dance. Last year, Labor senator Penny Wong declared that Pascoe had helped free Australians from an “underlying supremacism”. A children’s version has been published and a documentary film is being made.

At the same time, Pascoe, who, like Sutton, also grew up in a working-class family (becoming a teacher and then a writer of literary fiction, non-fiction, poetry, essays and children’s literature before finding unexpected fame), has been targeted by conservative commentators and media who have questioned both his version of history and his Aboriginality.

Pascoe claims to have discovered Aboriginal ancestors on both sides of his family, including the Palawa people from Tasmania, Bunurong from Victoria and Yuin from the south coast of NSW. Some Aboriginal people have embraced him, others have not. The conservative magazine Quadrant, whose editor Keith Windschuttle has accused historians of fabricating the extent of colonial violence, called him a “fauxborigine”. A vitriolic website, “Dark Emu Exposed”, was created by “a collective of Quiet Australians from many walks of life who question, and want to hold to account, authors who appear to be rewriting our Australian history to progress their own particular, political narrative”.

It is into this fraught arena that Sutton and his co-author, archaeologist Keryn Walshe, now step with Farmers or Hunter-Gatherers? The Dark Emu Debate. And their rebuttal of Dark Emu, published next week by Melbourne University Press, is damning. In page after page, Sutton and Walshe accuse Pascoe of a “lack of true scholarship”, ignoring Aboriginal voices, dragging respect for traditional Aboriginal culture back into the Eurocentric world of the colonial era, and “trimming” colonial observations to fit his argument. They write that while Dark Emu “purports to be factual” it is “littered with unsourced material, is poorly researched, distorts and exaggerates many points, selectively emphasises evidence to suit those opinions, and ignores large bodies of information that do not support the author’s opinions”.

“It is actually not, properly considered, a work of scholarship,” they write. “Its success as a narrative has been achieved in spite of its failure as an account of fact.”

Keryn Walshe says that in presenting pre-colonial society as more “advanced” than was known, Dark Emu understates the complexity of hunter-gatherer life. Credit: Josh Robenstone.

The Sutton/Walshe book is not the first criticism of Dark Emu. Australian National University anthropologist Ian Keen has said that Pascoe’s evidence for Aboriginal farming is “deeply problematic”, although he also believes that some of the criticism has been used to support a racist agenda. Christophe Darmangeat, a lecturer in social anthropology at the Sorbonne in France, wrote that in Dark Emu Pascoe mixes “perfectly proven elements, others possible but more doubtful, others very improbable, and finally frank fabrications, firing on all cylinders by handling concepts and facts with a disarming casualness”. Quadrant published a polemical book, Bitter Harvest, against Pascoe’s claims. But Sutton and Walshe’s Farmers or Hunter-Gatherers? is the most forensic and best-credentialled examination and repudiation of Dark Emu.

Over his long career, Sutton has been credited with explaining Aboriginal art to the world in the sophisticated catalogue that accompanied the landmark Dreamings exhibition to America in 1988. He has written or contributed to 20 books, and about 200 anthropology and linguistics papers. He has been an expert anthropological researcher in 87 Aboriginal land claims since 1979. When barrister Ron Castan presented the landmark Wik case to the High Court in June 1996, he brandished a 1000-page anthropological report entitled Aak, the Wik word for homeland, written by Sutton and others, which he said would be the foundation for the argument.

Keryn Walshe’s work in archaeology over 35 years has included a decade at Koonalda Cave, a rich heritage site that has offered a glimpse of Aboriginal life on the Nullarbor Plain during the Pleistocene. In 2017, her work took her to Sturt Creek in the Kimberley, where she was asked to examine burned bone fragments at a place called “the goat yards”, where more than a dozen Aboriginal people were alleged to have been massacred in 1922. The examination found nothing to dispute Aboriginal accounts of the massacre and a “very high likelihood” that the remains were human, based on the intensity of the fire in which they were burned.

Sutton and Walshe’s book comes, uncomfortably, from the publishing house of the university that last year appointed Pascoe as Enterprise Professor in Indigenous Agriculture. At Melbourne University Press, which suffered an organisational seizure two years ago when chief executive Louise Adler and board members quit after the university ordered a focus on more academic works, Adler’s successor, Nathan Hollier, describes Farmers or Hunter-Gatherers? as an important book for MUP, “in the sense that it might well build awareness of what we are doing, namely publishing works of scholarship, for a broad readership, which build respect for us as an especially trusted source of knowledge and commentary and respect for scholarship more generally”.

He says that he did not know Pascoe was to be appointed to a professorship at the university until it was publicly announced, but even if he had known of it, it would not have affected MUP’s decision to publish Farmers or Hunter-Gatherers?.

Dark Emu author Bruce Pascoe says he welcomes the difference of opinion in Sutton and Walshe’s book. Credit: Justin McManus.

At his home at Gipsy Point, Victoria, Pascoe waits for the storm to break. He seems sanguine. In a written response to extracts shown to him, he tells Good Weekend, “Dark Emu has encouraged many Australians to recognise the ingenuity and sophistication of the many Aboriginal cultures, societies and land-management practices, which had not previously been brought to mainstream attention. The extent of Aboriginal social and economic organisation has been surprising to many Australians and a nuanced debate needs to be ongoing.”

He says it would be “disappointing” if Australia’s understanding of Aboriginal history and culture “digressed to a limiting debate about semantics and nomenclature”.

“Hunter-gatherer and farmer are both settler/colonial labels, and the long-prevailing negative interpretation of hunter-gatherer has been used as a weapon against Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples (as a justification for terra nullius),” he writes.

“Language can be used to help people to see the world differently, to open minds to new ways of seeing. This is what I tried to achieve with Dark Emu.”

“Language can be used to help people to see the world differently, to open minds to new ways of seeing. This is what I tried to achieve with Dark Emu.”

Asked about MUP’s decision to publish Farmers or Hunter-Gatherers?, he says: “I would be alarmed if a university press began suppressing academic commentary. Certain academics may feel a particular book has flaws, but it would be an indictment on all our futures if we suppressed dissent. I have no problem with Sutton’s book being published by MUP. In fact, I welcome the discussion and difference of opinion as it should further this important examination of our history. Dark Emu has helped to shine a light on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander ingenuity, the stewardship of Aboriginal lands and First Nations’ agricultural practices in Australia.”

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See also: Anthropologist and archaeologist say Dark Emu was littered with weak evidence and unsourced claims

Council of Australasian Museum Directors, c/o Ms Daryl Karp, Museum of Australian Democracy at Old Parliament House PO Box 3934 Manuka, Australian Capital Territory 2603 Australia, © CAMD 2021
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